When it comes to buildings, age is something to brag about. Structures like Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Coliseum are beautiful in their own right, but so much of our candid admiration of those places comes from their age. We marvel, not only at their beauty, but that they were built thousands of years ago, in times when modern machinery wasn’t even a glimmer in the greatest genius’ minds. To be impressive, to truly take our breath away, we assume that a building has to be old.
There’s something about a monument that was built, brick by brick and as a product of the sweat of manual labor, that makes us so much more appreciative of it. If the Taj Mahal had been built three years ago, rather than 350, it would still look just as majestic, but it would lose that romantic air that comes from being built without the hulking help of cranes and backhoes.
As great as modern society can be, it’s not exactly producing landmarks that are so majestic that they’ll draw crowds for hundreds of years to come. There’s no modern equivalent to the Sistene Chapel or Machu Picchu. Of course, we have places like the Empire State Building, the Space Needle, and Burj Khalifa, products of the 20th and 21st centuries that are jaw-dropping in their architectural prowess. But people usually flock to those places for the view from the top; it’s rarely for the buildings themselves. They just don’t make them like they used to.
Well, except for in Abu Dhabi, which is home to a modern marvel that belongs comfortably up in the ranks of all those old-world treasures.
To look at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with its grand white marble minarets and spiraling floral patterns, you’d think that it’s a few centuries old. It has that old world type of magnificence surrounding it, the kind that makes your pace stutter a bit and your eyes widen as they struggle to take the whole thing in at once. In reality, though, it’s not even ten years old; construction wasn’t completed until 2007, making it practically brand new as far as houses of worship go.
On my recent trip to Turkey, I had a 22-hour layover in Abu Dhabi, and as I wasn’t so keen on spending a nearly full day traipsing around the airport’s corridors, I headed to the mosque.
There’s no way around it: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is downright gorgeous. Abu Dhabi, or at least the part that I saw during my cab ride, is muted. It’s all beiges, tans, faded greens, and dusty reds. The Grand Mosque is like a great, white, shining diamond in comparison. It’s made of snow white marble that’s so bright it actually physically hurts to look at it in the midday sun. Against the stark whiteness of the courtyard, a garden of marble red, green, and blue flowers grow. Hundreds of pristine white and gold columns, inlaid with adventurine, mother of pearl, and lapis lazuli blooms, line the arcades and are reflected in the outer sapphire pools. A minaret rises from each corner, and eighty-two domes crown the whole thing. No offense, but it is undoubtedly more impressive than the church (or temple or mosque) you attend.
The only real reaction to seeing it for the first time is awe. You get the idea that the Grand Mosque is a place that breaks records and impresses you just for the sheer sake of it. Case in point: it’s by far the largest mosque in the UAE and the eighth largest in the world. More than forty thousand people can worship there at one time, and the inner prayer hall will hold about seven thousand people.
The carpet that covers the main hall is the largest in the world (60,570 square feet), weighs 35 tons, and was knotted by hand by around 1,200 Iranian women over the course of two years. Its seven chandeliers were imported from Germany and feature millions of Swarovski crystals. The largest weighs around ten tons and is fifty feet in height; the smallest is “only” 1.5 tons. All in all, the construction of the Grand Mosque cost about 545 million USD.
All that beauty has a lot of meaning behind it, as well. The mosque is named for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late president and ‘father’ of the UAE and a man who wanted to build a structure that represented the diversity and unity of the Islam world while also paying a tribute to modern architecture and art. The Grand Mosque’s architectural design draws influence from Arab, Persian, Moorish, and Mughal styles, and the materials used come from places as varied as New Zealand, Italy, India, Macedonia, China, Malaysia, and Turkey. The main contracting company, Impregilo, is based in Milan, Italy; men from the UAE, Syria, and Jordan drafted the calligraphy displayed throughout the mosque; and a UK design firm, Speirs + Major, designed the lighting. To put it simply, though it’s located in Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque is a structure designed and built from around the world.
One piece of advice, though? Don’t go in summer. I’ve been hot in my life, but I’ve never been “Abu Dhabi in August” hot. I’ll be very surprised if one or two of my internal organs didn’t liquefy in the ungodly, 106+ degree heat.